Stories

Pressing into the bittersweet {and a love letter to my widow friends}

Posted by | Behold, community, Compassion, cooking, courage, fierce flourishing, food stories, friendship, Grief, Hope, Stories | 4 Comments

 

My love language is food, and I love sharing it with my people.  This past Sunday night I hosted a dinner party at my house. In the afternoon, my girls helped me roll meatballs, frost mini bundt cakes and dip chocolate strawberries. We scrubbed toilets and pulled out extra chairs so we could fit all the guests around the table. While my oldest prepared activities for the kids, I lit a mess of candles and arranged flowers all over the house.

The goal: to make our friends feel loved and cherished.

After all, it’s Valentine’s week, and we needed to celebrate. As the guests began to spill in the door, the pasta water began to boil. Everyone gathered in the entryway exchanging hugs and catching up. The kids found their way to our office/playroom with no trouble and started up a game of heart bingo.

The party had officially commenced.

A few friends helped me in the kitchen and we served up steaming platters of pumpkin ravioli with alfredo sauce and beef tortellini with tomato-meat ragu. We passed an antipasto salad and crusty bread with softened butter around the table. The volume rose with little clusters of friends all around the room chatting and telling stories.

You might not be able to tell it from the outside, but we all had one thing in common. We were all widows.

To be honest, this is not the kind of gathering I ever expected to have at my house. This certainly was never the story I would have written for myself. When I read my wedding vows to my beloved Ericlee, the thought never crossed my mind that I would be widowed before the age of 40. I never thought about navigating grief with my three daughters all under the age of 8 when their daddy graduated to heaven. Prior to his cancer diagnosis, all our dinner parties were with family and couples and friends with kids.

As I gazed around the table Sunday night, I experienced something surprisingly bittersweet.

Author Shauna Niequist illuminates this poignantly: “Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness.”

As my widow friends told stories, rich laughter rang out around the table. It was contagious. One story led to the next and to the next. An evening that could have been somber, that could have been spent home alone on the couch, was suddenly dripping with bittersweet like those strawberries dipped in dark chocolate.

We savored every bite.

I know Valentine’s Day can be hard when you are missing someone you love. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we were all surprised by joy and a few tears as we each remembered what we loved most about our husbands. Each one talked about husbands who had made them feel loved and cherished, who were their cheerleaders, their best friends, their spiritual leaders and the faithful fathers of their children.

I saw courageous mothers around that table. I saw women digging deep to rise above the ashes. I saw widows who were not willing to be defined by pity, but instead held fast to faith. Their strength buoyed mine.

We sent each of the women home that night with a bouquet of roses. As they drove away, I was struck by how, despite life’s thorns, God cultivates resilience in us through community. The blessing Sunday night was all mine.

 

***

 

Dear Widow Friend,

Today I know may feel bittersweet. I know the very thought of Valentine’s Day may prick your heart and trigger your memories. I know you will be scrolling through social media and see all the pictures of couples, and you will miss him.

You will stop and wonder how this came to be. You will ask yourself why you have to endure this holiday without your beloved. Again. I urge you to press in. Give yourself permission to grieve. Allow yourself to step into those memories. Don’t try to shut it down.

Remind yourself what you loved most about your man. Jot down some of those special things he did or the words he would gift to you on a day like today. Tell your kids about that silly gift he brought you that one year or the way he always showed up with flowers.

It’s ok to be a little sad on Valentine’s Day. It’s alright to shed a few tears – or even a deluge of tears if you have to – as you look at his pictures, as you remember the curve of his jaw and the tenor of his laughter.

I don’t want you to forget that you are still cherished. You are still loved.

I can’t help thinking about women in the Bible like Hagar who wandered in the wilderness with her child. God found her there. “Where have you come from and where are you going?” He asked her. He cared about her story. He saw her in her brokenness and leaned in close to see her, to listen to her.

Our God who sees is bending close to see you today.

I can’t help thinking about the widow, Ruth, who lost her husband and all the providers in her life. She followed her mother-in-law to a foreign land. She trusted God even in her grief. And He provided for her in Bethlehem. She was given food and shelter – and eventually a husband who brought new value to her life. A kinsman redeemer.

Widow friend, He provides for us in Bethlehem too.

I don’t pretend to know where or when or how God will provide for you, but I know He will. He is always, always, always working underground on your behalf. He may give you the gift of community. He may speak to you in a sunset. He may sing to you through the radio or the tune of a bird. Look for Him today. Listen for his love notes.

On this Valentine’s Day, I am extending my hands to you. I wish you courage and kindness and grace. And I wish you love.

Dorina

A Book Review: Nothing to Prove by Jennie Allen

Posted by | Book reviews, community, margin, Stories, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

 

I am a recovering achiever. I was raised in a family of Filipino-Italian immigrants of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps variety. I attended a college prep school from elementary through high school. As I was growing up, I raced from piano lessons to dance lessons to theater productions to year-round sports events. I was the editor of the yearbook in high school and the newspaper in college. In short, my schedule was always packed, my homework list long, and my dreams and goals list was even longer.

This was my foundation.

None of these things is bad, of course. In fact, I am thankful for my family, my education and the way God wired me. I am also a person who thrives on words of encouragement and affirmation. Today I recognize that this combination of life experiences and personality traits can be dangerous. All that striving. All that reaching can be a perfect storm for breakdown.

In recent years, my brokenness covered by God’s amazing grace has far outweighed my appetite for achieving but I still have to be cautious about a natural tendency to strive. When I opened the pages of Jennie Allen’s newly-released book, Nothing to Prove: Why We can Stop Trying So Hard, I felt like she was speaking right into my recovering achiever’s heart.

“My prayer is for you to start enjoying the freedom that comes when we quit trying to prove ourselves, when we surrender what is out of control to the One who is control,” she writes. “We strive to be seen, to be known, to matter….We are not enough. We are not God.”

Nothing to Prove is written for the weary traveler, the woman who is overwhelmed by expectations and pressures, as well as the hidden belief that she is not good enough, talented enough or spiritual enough. Jennie shares real-life stories of her own struggle with inadequacy and insecurity, and then invites readers into a more spacious, grace-filled place.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One tells Jennie’s story of striving and invites readers “to start enjoying the freedom that comes when we quit trying to prove ourselves, when we surrender what is out of control to the One who is in control.”

Part Two focuses on the following feelings and insecurities that plague women: thirsty, lonely, tired, passive, afraid, ashamed and empty. Jennie unpacks how God is enough for each one of us in those places. Jennie uniquely starts each chapter with the retelling of a Bible story in first person. Her words make these familiar stories come alive in a new way.

I especially resonated with her retelling of one of my favorite passages, John 11, when Mary and Martha send word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus is deathly ill. Jennie writes from Mary’s perspective running through all the doubts and emotions she must have felt as she waited for Jesus to come. I’ve studied and even taught this story many times but Jennie helped me see it with new eyes.

What I appreciate is that Jennie writes the way she speaks. I have had the privilege of hearing Jennie speak live several times at conferences. I have also joined her at the dinner table with a small group of leaders. In real life and her book, I love her vulnerability, authenticity and passion. She is at once an honest storyteller and a passionate preacher.

This weekend she will be leading the IF:Gathering in Austin, Texas while thousands around the globe will watch through simulcast. I have the privilege of helping host our own IF:Fresno gathering here in Fresno, California at The Bridge Church starting at 5:30 p.m. today and 9a.m.-4:30  p.m. Saturday. This event brings women leaders and preachers from all over the globe to gather and share with an eager audience of women. I’m grateful for Jennie’s vision to disciple a generation of women.

Jennie always challenges me and calls me up as a leader. She writes, “The degree to which we believe and embrace our identity as a Spirit-filled child of God will be the degree to which His light shines through us. We are God’s and He is ours. He is in us and through us and with us. That is our identity and it changes everything.”

The lesson is not lost on me: If I am secure in my identity in Christ, I have nothing to prove.

Soup’s on: Italian sausage & kale soup

Posted by | food stories, friendship, Inspirational, politics, Recipes, Stories, Struggle/Hardship, transitions, Uncategorized | No Comments

 

This time of year – when colds are plentiful and the air has that memorable chill – all I’m thinking about is SOUP! After perusing many Italian sausage soup recipes, I decided to create my own healthy variety and it was a big hit with my family.

The great thing about this recipe is it uses kale, which you can find fresh at the local farmer’s market this season. Kale has huge health benefits, including being rich in beta-carotene (which protects against diseases of the skin) and a host of vitamins. Kale helps ward off colds and flus during the winter.

This has been a big week for our nation as Donald Trump was inaugurated 45th president. There has been a lot of chaos swirling on the internet and in the world. Now, more than ever, I believe it’s important for us to gather in our homes, our churches, and even in our city’s public spaces to listen well and share our deeper stories. I believe in these challenging times we are all called to the “ministry of presence.” It’s easy to mouth off on Twitter or re-post that article on Facebook that supports our views, but the reality is people are hurting and scared. The most courageous thing we can do is listen. The bravest thing we can do is stand with them.

I’m putting out a soup challenge to you. Make a big pot of soup sometime this month. It could be this recipe below, or another favorite like my Tortilla Soup, or a family recipe of your own. There’s something about the warm comfort of soup that brings a group of people together. You might add a salad or a loaf of crusty bread and butter to melt over top of it. Invite some neighbors, perhaps a family from your kid’s school, or someone else you want to get to know. Step out of your comfort zone and into their story, then come back to tell us about it here or on Instagram.

Soup’s on! #soupsonchallenge
Italian Chicken Sausage and Kale Soup

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 red potatoes, chopped
1 15-oz can crushed tomatoes (or fresh, of course, if they’re in season)
2 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups (cage free, organic) chicken broth
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 package Italian Chicken Sausage, cooked and cut into bite-sized pieces (I use Trader Joe’s sweet Italian sausage or Sicilian Italian sausage if the crowd can take a little spice.)
3 cups thinly sliced kale (green or purple)
1 15-oz can canellini (white) beans
¼ cup butter

½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Garnish: Shaved parmesan cheese

Directions:

  1. Add olive oil to a large stock pot and turn to medium-high heat.
  2. Remove sausage from casing and saute in olive oil. (You can use a potato masher or fork to break up sausage)
  3. Meanwhile, chop all onions, celery and potatoes.
  4. Add the minced garlic to the sausage and saute until fragrant.
  5. Add the chopped veggies and tomatoes to the pot.
  6. Add chicken broth and spices to pot. Bring to a boil.
  7. Reduce heat and add kale and beans to pot. Cook an additional 10 minutes.
  8. Stir in butter and parmesan cheese.
  9. Serve with shaved parmesan cheese for garnish.

Makes approximately 8-10 servings.

*Gluten-free

 

The Ministry of Presence

Posted by | community, Compassion, courage, Culture, death, Fear, friendship, Grief, Hope, Personal Stories, politics, protecting kids, relationships, serve, Sharing faith, Social Justice, Stories, Struggle/Hardship | 2 Comments

 

Last night I woke to the sound of my 5-year-old whimpering in the next room. I ran in to check on her. “Mama, mama, I had the baddest dream,” came her trembling voice. I climbed into the top bunk bed next to her and laid down. “Mama’s here,” I assured her. She put her little hand in mine. Immediately, I felt her body relax. She drifted back to sleep. In that moment, I realized what my baby-girl needed was my presence.

That little scenario made me pause. I couldn’t help thinking about the emotions I have felt in the weeks following the election and the Inauguration last Friday. This season has been harrowing to say the least. I have voted in six presidential elections in my lifetime, and I never remember it being this bad. The divisiveness, the name calling, the character bashing, the violence, the fear, the dismissiveness of those in my community grieves me.

Immediately following the election, I read a lot of posts on social media that people should stop being crybabies about the outcome. I read more of the same after the Inauguration on Friday and the Women’s March on Saturday. These were painful to read because there is so much more at stake here. It’s not a simple, “Your team won; mine lost” scenario. Meanwhile, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have also been teeming with posts about hate crimes and sexual assaults committed, about friends with families and local businesses who fear being deported, about school children expressing uncertainty about their future.

My heart aches for my people and our country.

I have been searching for my place in all this. I have been asking myself, “How can I use my voice as a woman, as a multi-ethnic American, and as a Christian in this climate? How can I leverage my privileges to lift up the most vulnerable? How can I offer grace and love to my neighbor in tense times like these?” The answer I keep hearing is related to what my 5-year-old taught me when she was fighting her nightmare. I need to offer up the “ministry of presence.”

In this context, a “ministry of presence” means moving in close to listen, laying down our defensiveness and agendas, and offering up empathy instead. I have been reading Ann Voskamp’s latest book, The Broken Way, and she reminds me anew that Jesus always moves into the places of grief and offers up the ministry of presence. She writes, “In a broken world, isn’t the call always to koinonia, to communion with community that bears our burdens with us? Wasn’t suffering then actually a call for us to be a community, to stand together and bear under, trusting that arms of love are always under us?”

I have been offered the gift of presence several times in my life, and it has been important to my healing. When I was in college, I was walking to class one day and two men grabbed me from behind. In the days that followed that sexual assault, fear rose up inside me like an all-consuming monster. Thankfully, I escaped rape but the damage to my mind had already been done. I could not walk down the street or a hallway without feeling anxiety or going into a panic attack.

During that season, a dear friend and her boyfriend (who later in life became a police officer) decided to be present with me. They woke up early every morning and walked me to my classes. They waited around to see me home in the evenings. It was a simple gesture but their presence made all the difference in the world. Little by little – through counseling and mountains of prayers over many years – I regained confidence. I found the tools to combat my fear. Of course, it was unrealistic for them to be my bodyguards for life but their willingness to be present with me in that initial season was a powerful gift.

More than 15 years later, I faced a devastating stage four cancer diagnosis for my beloved husband. This was a different kind of trauma. During that journey, I had hundreds of people who offered to help us in tangible ways but it was the ones who offered the “ministry of presence” whom I needed the most. Friends came to play worship music for my husband in his final days. Friends came to sit with us through the long hours of the night when he faced the most pain, and I was the most exhausted. My community stood with me by the graveside, and they offered my young daughters and me a safe space to grieve in the months to follow.

One family offered us the gift of their presence just a few months after his death when it was time to buy a Christmas tree. Our family’s tradition was to go to a local Christmas tree lot and pick out a tree with Daddy. As the time drew closer to Christmas, dread heightened in my heart. Our friends asked me this question, “How can we be present for you this season? What’s something we can do to support you?” They agreed to accompany us to the Christmas tree lot.

The girls ran down the aisles of the tree lot in search of the perfect tree with their friends. The husband helped secure it to my car. My dear friend hugged me tight as we put it up in our home. The tears pooled in my eyes when a gathering of friends came to decorate our tree. We shared ornaments with all of them as reminders of my husband and his quirky personality.

This simple act was healing for our family because it was more than a “like” on Facebook or an act of service, more than a check or card in the mail. They were not focused on giving advice or urging me to get over it. These friends stepped into a messy, awkward situation full of grief and memories, and they were present. They listened to our needs and offered to go with us on the journey. We were not alone.

I give these two examples because I believe in these challenging times we are all called to the “ministry of presence.” It’s easy to mouth off on Twitter or re-post that article on Facebook that supports our views, but the reality is people are hurting and scared. The most courageous thing we can do is listen. The bravest thing we can do is stand with them.

We recently visited a family who has adopted children from Ethiopia and Mexico. A picture of Donald Trump flashed on the television behind us. Their middle son asked his mama again and again if his brother would be deported. She told me he has asked hundreds of times in the last week. His parents try to reassure him and offer up comfort, but it’s hard.

I sat at my kitchen table the other day listening to the story of a dear friend who has been working for years to get her American citizenship. The process has been hairy. She watched the election with fear and trembling, realizing the ramifications for her family after living and contributing in the U.S. for decades. I listened. She educated me. She spoke with courageous faith and prayed for God to make a way for her now.

I recently dined with a group of my heart friends at a local Indian restaurant, where we often celebrate each other’s birthdays. This group of friends represents a diversity of cultures and professions. We all attend different churches and live in different parts of the city. It was important to be present with each other, to sit face to face and listen to each other’s unique experiences. One woman’s son was afraid his grandma (who is a citizen) will be sent back to El Salvador. Another friend said one of her clients just chose to move to Mexico to escape all that is happening.

I considered my own multi-ethnic daughters, whose hair colors and skin colors vary in hue. How would these next four years shape their cultural identities? Would they endure comments and prejudice? As mamas, my friends and I contemplated: How can we administer grace, teach resilience and model peace in our communities and our homes?

My challenge to myself and to you is to ask: How can I be present for someone today? This is not just about acts of service or help. It’s taking time to listen, to empathize, to grieve alongside others.

These are some practical examples that have inspired me:

-invite friends to dinner and ask them to share their stories
-walk to school with neighbors and friends
-make something and deliver it to a neighbor from a different cultural background and ask them how they are doing
-offer to sit and be present with someone who is grieving
-read books to your children about empathy, kindness and other cultures
-stand with someone in your community who is afraid
-speak up against racist or sexist remarks

Friends, this is how we can be used by God in these uncertain times. In Matthew 1:23, an angel announces the birth of Jesus Christ: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us.’)” God chose to put on flesh and come to earth as a baby, who grew to be a man, who chose to be with people, to walk alongside them in their suffering, and lay down his life for them.

In the same way, we are designed to dwell with others in community. We need to carve out space for lament in our churches. We need to ask the hard questions and listen to our neighbor’s story. We need to set aside our political differences and be present with others, especially those vulnerable during this season. This is activism too. We need to seize the opportunity to be Immanuel – God with us – to those in our community.

**This article was previously published on www.inAllthings.org.

Learning to Flourish through the Seasons (and the big reveal of my 2017 One Word)

Posted by | Behold, death, fierce flourishing, Grief, margin, rest, running, self-care, Stories, Struggle/Hardship, transitions, Uncategorized, writing | One Comment

 

For me, 2016 started with fireworks. On January 16, Shawn and I celebrated our wedding – a true redemption story after losing my beloved Ericlee to cancer in 2014. That year was a journey of finding God’s glory even in the darkest hours. Then 2015 was a year to redeem, to witness God bringing new value to all that had been broken and lost for our family. As I stood at the altar with my bridegroom, surrounded by more than 500 friends and family, I felt like I was stepping into a new and spacious garden ready to bloom. I was eager to flourish.

I chose FLOURISH as my One Word to focus on for 2016. At the start, flourish sang to me of bright colors and new beginnings. The dictionary tells me that flourish is a verb, meaning to thrive; to grow luxuriantly; to be in one’s prime; to be at the height of fame, influence, success; to prosper. I marched into 2016 with a spirit of newfound joy and fierce hope.

Of course, just as in past years, I had no idea how that one word would shape me, challenge me, break me and remake me from the inside out.

A few months into 2016, I started to feel overwhelmed. I had way too much on my plate. I was still leading in several large capacities, while adding a new husband, new family situation and a giant new speaking/writing project to my list. Something had to give. In a conversation on one of our regular date nights, my hubby gently suggested I clear my plate of commitments so I could really focus on the new projects God was calling me to.

I balked.

Clear everything from my plate at one time? Who does that? I loved everything I was involved in. Every piece felt important and meaningful. What could I possibly get rid of or step down from? They needed me, right? I hemmed and hawed. I strategized about ways I could keep certain things and be more efficient with my time.

One afternoon, I overheard my mother-in-law giving my middle daughter a lesson in keeping roses. The two of them were on the front patio of our new home with huge garden clippers. I saw the sad state of our rose bushes. The one in the middle had two thick, root branches that were so heavy they were making the whole bush topple forward. As Grandma directed, my 7-year-old went to work pruning branches. Even some of the prettiest roses on the bush had to be clipped for the good of the entire bush.

The lesson was not lost on me. I knew deep in my heart it was time to prune.

These familiar words echoed in my heart: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15: 2-3, ESV).

Did you catch that? It doesn’t say he leaves the branches that are thriving, the biggest branches, the ministries that look the most successful, the activities that bring in the most people or seem to depend the most on you. The verse says every branch – even the ones bearing fruit – must be pruned.

Hadn’t I already learned enough about pruning? After all, in the past year and half I had sacrificed my husband to cancer, my position working for a non-profit in Haiti, several circles of friends, and so many of my life-long dreams for our family. Letting go of those things was excruciating. Why would God ask me to give up more?

This time it was about obedience. Looking back, I know He was asking me to let go of some good things that had become so big in my life they defined me. These were the thickest branches of my rose bush weighing me down. He wanted me to lean into His present calling on my life so my identity was re-defined in Him.

This spring I surrendered my teaching job at the university. I passed on my role leading a thriving moms group (MOPS) at our church. I stepped out of some other community groups and said no to a bunch of invitations to speak and attend events that had become regular on my calendar through the years.

At first, it was much harder than I thought it would be. I thought I could just move on to the next thing but I discovered even when God prunes us for the good we need to give ourselves time to grieve. I missed the communities and circles of friends. I missed the sense of purpose I had felt in those spaces.

I also discovered something scary about myself. I didn’t know how to rest.

After more than a decade operating a non-profit with my husband and working in highly-demanding leadership and ministry places, I didn’t know how to sit in the quiet. In those months, my branches felt naked, bare, no sign of green or color. I had to learn to wait and listen and trust.

During the summer, I chose to focus on a few things to nourish my soul and my body. I chose to read more books and signed up to run a full marathon. This was important not just to fill the time but to deliberately and intentionally take time to learn and be quiet. As I logged lots of miles and hours, I started to feel alive again. Especially when I was running, I carved out time to listen and pour out my heart to God. And when I would come home from long runs, I was exhausted and ready to rest. Naps were unapologetically part of my day.

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. (John 4:13-14, ESV)

Like my thirsty rose bushes, my soul needed water. I needed to let this living water seep deep into my soul soil and nourish my roots. For years, I had only afforded myself quick drinks at the drinking fountain. This summer I drank deeply from the well. I gave myself permission to rest, to run with my Father and spend time investing in my husband and daughters. That nourishing phase was important to helping me recalibrate my heart and all of us to bond as a family.

When September rolled around, our family rhythm changed again. My girls went back to school and for the first time in more than a decade I had at least three full days a week to focus on my writing. For years I had dreamed of this time but it was finally here, and it felt revolutionary somehow. I had the time to work on editing and sending out several of the children’s book manuscripts I had written. I also had brain space to work on a bigger book and bible study project.

One day as I was slipping in our front door, I stopped in my tracks before the rose bushes. Huge pink blooms the size of my 5-year-old’s head were on multiple branches. I had never seen roses this big. We clipped half a dozen to put in a spacious, glass vase on our dining room table – a reminder that God often allows us to bloom in unexpected ways in His perfect timing.

In November, I received an email from a children’s book agent that she was interested in representing my work. Then I heard from another and another agent. After 10 years of receiving rejection letters and wading through the discouragement of having so little time to devote to my writing, I had choices. For such a time as this I am stepping into a new season of writing, publishing and sharing my stories for His glory.

This fall, Shawn and I also signed up to help coach the cross country team at our daughters’ school. We decided this was something we could invest in as a family and could provide a door for us to develop relationships with more families in our school community. Just before Christmas we hosted an end-of-season celebration at our house. As kids jumped on the trampoline in the yard and the kitchen and dining room were spilling with parents and coaches, I felt a deep joy welling up inside. I flushed with the color of this new garden we found ourselves flourishing in.

If I had not gone through the process of pruning, resting and nourishing, I might not have the chance to experience these surprising blooms.

I am returning tonight to the words of John 15, this time in verse 8: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (ESV).

In a year’s time God has taught me much about the process of flourishing. I cannot become a flourishing garden overnight. In fact, I have to prepare myself to be pruned in every area at one time or another. And most importantly, I need to cultivate my time to have space to help others flourish so my Father – the Master Gardener – can be glorified. I know the process of flourishing will circle back around. He will continue to ask me to prune, rest, nourish and bloom in various seasons.

I am looking to 2017 with expectancy.  My One Word chosen for 2017 is BEHOLD. This word has allured me for a few months now. I believe it is about BEing, pausing and living present in His presence. I know it’s about allowing Him to HOLD me close, to hold still and to savor each moment. I’ve already started a treasure hunt through the Bible. I’ve discovered that word BEHOLD is used in many ways. Most prominently, it’s used as a call to fix our eyes upon, to observe with care, and to reflect God’s glory. Sounds like the perfect banner to hold boldly overhead as I enter into 2017.


What are some of your reflections on 2016? Have you chosen One Word for 2017? Please comment below and start the conversation.

Embracing grief as part of Christmas

Posted by | christmas, Grief, Stories, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

 

My fingers page through this precious Advent book, my eyes scanning through the readings and my own handwritten reflections from the last three Advent seasons. Each year, has been marked by such grief and such surprising joy. I trace the words of this journal, remembering the days I felt most vulnerable and the days I felt most strengthened. This book marks the journey of my heart to the manger.

This will be my third Christmas missing my beloved – our third Christmas with him missing at the table, his loud voice missing when we sing the carols on Christmas Eve, his laughter missing during the unpacking of stockings and unwrapping of gifts.

I still remember our first Christmas after he died. We tried to hold it together. We tried to stay the course with certain traditions, but it was clear something was off-kilter. We passed the Bible around the circle to read the Christmas story, but his blazing voice was missing. We tried to make conversation at the table, but it felt strained, awkward, empty without his presence.

Looking back, I wish I had been more intentional that year to speak up when things felt wonky. My heart was pained, but I couldn’t push to find the words to articulate it. As a newly-single mama, I was cracking inside for my three girls who were without their gregarious daddy. I saw my family stumbling through the holidays as we lacked his leadership. Now I know it takes time to recalibrate when someone is lost.

I discovered some traditions need to be reimagined. We need to provide space to acknowledge, to be quiet and to remember together. One year we sent out Advent books to all our friends and family in his honor. I love getting the messages from friends as they are reading that book with their families each year and remembering Ericlee’s legacy of faith. Last year I decided to let go of the long-time tradition of going to pick out a real Christmas tree. That was something we did with him, and I wanted to reserve that for our memories. Now our family takes time to share memories of Daddy in Heaven while we hang each ornament on our artificial tree.

I know many of you are stepping into this Christmas feeling raw and vulnerable. That miscarriage you experienced a few months ago, that recent cancer diagnosis, that child estranged from your family, the death of your spouse or grandparent, the unspeakable injustices raging in our world – all these weigh heavy on our hearts. Christmas is the not time to turn away from our grief; it’s time to draw close and offer the present of our presence to each other.

This is not the time to plaster on the cheery face, to try to go through the motions and shut down our emotions. This is the time to muster up the courage to sit together, to weep with each other, to listen to each other’s stories, to rejoice in the new beginnings and the unexpected gifts. Let’s vow to lean in together.

Christ’s birth was always pregnant with a certain bittersweet. Like the birthing process, there is pain always wrapped up with the joy. God knew He was sending His son to earth as a baby born to die so we all might live. This baby wrapped in swaddling clothes has been wrapped in the paradox of death and life from the very beginning of the story.

To fully understand Christmas we have to embrace the grief with the joy.

After my husband died, I wondered if I should be cautious about experiencing joy. I hesitated to laugh because I was never sure when the trigger would come that would make me cry. I worried that people might judge me for finding new happiness and new love. These past few years, I realized that finding joy does not replace the grief of missing, but we still have permission to dance.

This year we count three Christmases missing my beloved, three years he has enjoyed in Glory. And this will be my first Christmas celebrating in a new house with my new husband and girls. This is a dance of joy and pain, a dance of breathtaking redemption only my Heavenly Father could orchestrate. I am starting to believe this dance is the way to embrace Christmas. I could sit on the sidelines and fake it or I can jump into the dance whirling with joy and pain, memories and merriment.

If you’re grieving this Christmas, give yourself space to remember. Be present with those around you. Think about how you might reimagine the traditions to honor the lost. Embrace the pain with the joy. Lean in with me.

I can’t stop singing the words to my favorite carol: “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…” He continues to show me His glory shines in every dark corner, in every cold stable, in every rough manger.

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Book Review: How The Broken Way leads to abundance

Posted by | gifts, Grief, Hope, passion, Social Justice, Stories, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

 

I remember that day so vividly. We were at a luncheon as part of the Justice Conference in Chicago. She was on a panel sharing about her experiences on a recent trip visiting women in crisis in the Middle East. The place cleared out pretty quickly after lunch as people rushed off to the next workshops. I spotted her near the stage with a few other panelists. Only a few other women were mulling about waiting to see Ann. This was a rare moment that the New York Times best-selling author was not being mobbed by faithful fans.

I knew I had to meet her. I had to tell her about how her words had changed my life.

I forced myself to walk awkwardly to the front of the room. My hands trembled as I waited: What could I say? How could I possibly squeeze my story of tragedy and triumph into a few quick minutes? How could I sufficiently tell her that her words had changed me and trained me for the most difficult season of my life?

She turned to me and looked straight into me with those piercing blue eyes full of deep compassion. She clasped my shaking hands in hers. The tears welled up in my eyes as I introduced myself and quickly spilled out my gratitude. I thanked her for teaching me the art of eucharisteo – giving thanks in all circumstances.  I told her how her practice of counting gifts had prepared me for horror of walking my husband through cancer and navigating his death with my three young daughters. Tears of sympathy glistened in her eyes as somehow I managed to talk about the secondary losses – walking away from our heart work in Haiti and stumbling forward into a new life as a widow.

I apologized for taking too much of her time. She called me by name and shook her head no. She said, “I hear you, Dorina, and I’m going to remember you.”

In that moment, I realized Ann Voskamp was the real deal. Authentic. Vulnerable. Compassionate. Broken. She took time to enter into the brokenness with me. She wasn’t rushing me along. She wasn’t some celebrity with perfect makeup and a precision haircut signing books with an agenda. She listened. She cried with me. She poured herself out.

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It was no surprise to me when I opened the pages of Ann’s new book, The Broken Way, that the book is about exactly what God has been asking me to do over the last two years: to find purpose in my pain.

Her words mentor me once again: “Not one thing in your life is more important than figuring out how to live in the face of unspoken pain.”

The theme of this book is identifying our brokenness and stepping into the brokenness of others as the path to a more abundant life.

I read each sentence slowly, really let the words sink in. This is not what you call a “quick read.” In fact, all of Ann’s writing is like that for me. I am forced to slow down, to drink in the words deliberately like a steaming cup of chai on a fall day, like reading a poem aloud and savoring every word. Sometimes I circle back and reread a line or two because I don’t want to miss a thing. She makes me think.

These words pierce me, “Jesus always moves into places moved with grief. Jesus always seeks out where the suffering is, and that’s where Jesus stays. The wound in His side proves that Jesus is always on the side of suffering, the wounded, the busted, the broken.”

I am reminded that as we endure suffering we can experience the greatest intimacy with our Maker. When we give ourselves permission to grieve and invite others to share with us in that space, there is communion. In the grief, there is healing. Grace abounds.

The Broken Way is the perfect sequel to One Thousand Gifts. Ann teaches us to go beyond counting gifts to being the gift to others. The acronym she uses is G.I.F.T. – Give It Forward Today. She dares us to let our brokenness be made into abundance. In her signature, turn of phrase, Ann proposes a challenge: “Maybe the only abundant way forward is always to give forward.”

I have experienced the truth of these words so profoundly over the last two years. I have learned the power of vulnerability. I have felt the healing balm of grieving with others. I have learned how to receive from community and give out of my brokenness. And I’m still learning.

In a world plagued by brokenness, this book is timely. The headlines scream about hurricanes in Haiti and human lives sacrificed in Syria, about shootings across our homeland and wars raging across the world. The Broken Way calls us out and calls us up. We don’t need bucket lists; We need to empty our own buckets again and again on behalf of others. Ann shows us that in that sacrifice we will experience abundant joy.

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“Wounds can be openings to the beauty in us. And our weaknesses can be a container for God’s glory… God does great things through the greatly wounded. God sees the broken as the best and He sees the best in the broken and He called the wounded to be world changers.”

If you feel broken and bruised, if you are wondering whether there could possibly be a way forward through grief, if you are burdened by the suffering in our world, you must read The Broken Way. It may just be your path to the abundant life.

 

 

 

AND THE WINNER IS….

Janna Olson!

Thanks to everyone who entered the Giveaway for a copy of The Broken Way! Stay tuned for more giveaways in the future!

 

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This is a story I never would have written for myself – ever

Posted by | Compassion, death, Grief, Marriage, Stories, Struggle/Hardship | No Comments

His breathing tightened. Each breath now was a labor. After almost 12 years of listening to the cadence of his breath as we ran marathons together, as he slept by my side, this sound was foreign, painful. I tried to hook up the oxygen tank brought by hospice.

Twice I connected the tubes to his nostrils. Twice he ripped them out. He was still fighting for life even as the cancer coursed through his body. His mother told me with her eyes that we were near the end. My heart knew it, too.

One by one, I ushered my young daughters – ages 2, 5 and 8 – into the room and urged them to kiss Daddy one more time. I cradled his hand in mine, fingering that wedding band – an unending circle of love between us. At dawn, light streamed wildly through the blinds of our bedroom window.

His hazel eyes moved toward the light. He clapped his hands together in his signature way and left his broken body behind….

**I wrote this article for the Valley Voices section of The Fresno Bee. Click here for the rest of the article that ended up running in more than 20 newspapers across the country.

http://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article102119772.html

Do you have a friend who needs permission to grieve? Please share!